European Repertory Company

at the National Pastime Theater

Over the past several months many Americans have stared at the stony face of Andrea Yates, wondering how this picture of Christian middle-class normalcy could have committed infanticide. Her insanity plea was not only expected but welcome, opening up the chasm of mental illness to separate her from us. Yet even the details of her apparent schizophrenia couldn’t turn her into a monster. Demons or no, Yates managed a household, cared for her children, spent time with neighbors. The most frightening thing about her is her resemblance to the rest of us.

The citizens of Leipzig looked with similar horror on Johann Woyzeck. On June 21, 1821, the 40-year-old former soldier and occasional barber and bookbinder heard a voice telling him to stab a woman who’d been his lover. After buying a new handle for his knife, he wandered about the city, almost throwing the weapon into a nearby pond but thinking better of it. He spotted the woman by chance on the street, forced her to let him walk her home, then stabbed her seven times. Quickly apprehended, he confessed to the murder and announced, “God let her be dead. She deserves it for what she did to me.”

The case seemed open-and-shut, but stories of Woyzeck’s mental instability resulted in a court-ordered examination. The doctor said he found an intelligent, articulate man with no apparent abnormalities save a slightly enlarged right testicle. Woyzeck was sentenced to die on November 13, 1822, but a private citizen’s petition chronicling the killer’s long history of visual and auditory hallucinations stayed the execution–until the same doctor who’d conducted the initial evaluation wrote a contradictory, self-congratulatory report again certifying Woyzeck’s sanity. He insisted that the man exhibited no unusual shape; no blemishes, scars, or birthmarks; not even bad breath. His eyes were “not at all wild, insolent, disturbed, unsteady or confused,” and in his face one found “nothing deceitful, malicious, repulsive or uncanny.” He was one of us. The convicted man was beheaded on August 27, 1824, leading to a long and furious debate over the new insanity defense.

It seems only natural that German playwright Georg Buchner, who had a keen interest in radical affairs, would one day write about the criminal’s saga, which he did in 1837 with Woyzeck–a wonderful work seldom produced today. Deeply involved in politics when he began work on his first play, Danton’s Death, Buchner had a warrant out for his arrest as coauthor and distributor of an insurrectionist pamphlet–at a time when merely advocating constitutional rights was a crime. Buchner wrote the revolutionary Danton’s Death in a few frantic weeks holed up in his father’s laboratory, his younger brother keeping watch for the authorities, a huge medical book on the table before him so that he could quickly conceal his work if necessary, a ladder against the window behind him. The police, he later jested, were his muse.

But Buchner was an oddly conflicted radical. He was full of righteous indignation against the oppressive regime ushered in after Napoleon’s defeat. As he wrote in a letter to his family (from the safety of Strasbourg), “What do you call a lawful state of affairs? A law which makes the great mass of citizens into drudging cattle in order to satisfy the unnatural desires of an insignificant and decadent minority?…I will fight it with my voice and hand wherever I can.” Yet in the same letter he justifies his complete lack of involvement in actual protests by calling “every revolutionary movement useless under present conditions.”

Perhaps in his heart of hearts Buchner had no real interest in revolutions waged on the streets or in government chambers. As he famously wrote in another letter–words that would eventually issue from Danton’s mouth–“What is it in us that lies, whores, steals and murders?” He was not searching for social or political explanations but rather for inherent human failings. However, he concluded that he didn’t “want to pursue the idea.”

Fortunately for the world of theater he did, through the infamous case then still on everyone’s mind: the crime of Johann Woyzeck, executed when Buchner was only ten. But rather than bolstering Woyzeck’s insanity defense, as a good liberal of his day might have done, Buchner turned the criminal into one of us, creating an enigmatic yet pitiable figure, a hapless soldier desperate to keep his faith. In Woyzeck’s world, which seems to grow darker by the second, people are divorced from their natures and rattle about just waiting for their empty slice of eternity to end. Woyzeck’s captain whiles away the time watching women pass by on the sidewalk yet bursts into tears at the sight of his coat hanging on a wall. The town doctor conducts endless experiments–he puts Woyzeck on a diet of peas–hoping to find scientific justification for human actions, including Woyzeck’s need to pee in an alley on his way home from work. Even the animals in this world are idle and denatured. A carnival barker slaps a coat and saber on a monkey and calls him a soldier. When the monkey takes a bow, the barker cries, “Now you are a baron at least.”

The only natural feeling in the play is Woyzeck’s love for his mistress, Marie, and their baby–the only affection in the play and Woyzeck’s only foothold in leading a moral life. But as in the bedtime story told in the play–a child is left all alone on the earth after discovering that the moon is made of rotten wood, the sun of a dead sunflower, and the stars of dead insects–Woyzeck loses his foothold when he discovers Marie’s infidelity. Her murder comes to seem as inevitable as it is nonsensical.

Buchner wrote Woyzeck only a few months before dying of typhoid fever at age 23. All that survives of the script is an incomplete, nearly illegible draft (if a completed draft existed, Buchner’s wife destroyed it before her death in 1880). A harrowing investigation of human morality, Woyzeck is also a seminal modern drama, laying the groundwork for both naturalism and expressionism. With its intellectual rigor, ethical complexities, and lyrical power, the script is masterful, still contemporary, human, and honest.

Unfortunately Nicholas Rudall’s direction of his own translation for European Repertory doesn’t begin to unleash its power. Like his grandiose but insupportable program notes, this staging has the superficial feel of great drama: it opens with a barren landscape, the sound of wind, actors lurking about in the dark holding candles. But no particulars give it credibility. Despite some extraordinary talent–Rick Frederick as Woyzeck, Carolyn Hoerdemann as Marie, Bruch Reed as the Doctor–the script is oddly unrealized. Without concrete social relations among the characters or the specific details of the world in which they live, one hardly gets the sense that Woyzeck and Marie have a history at all. And if the audience can’t invest in their relationship, the play’s tragic dimension all but disappears.

Most frustrating is this production’s lack of ideas. Many of Buchner’s incidental characters give speeches packed with complex musings about the nature of humanity–most of them rushed through here as though the actors could see little importance in them. But Woyzeck must navigate these systems of thought, tossed out by drunkards, con artists, and the like. Without them, Buchner’s protagonist is essentially idle, buffeted by seemingly arbitrary forces rather than struggling to find his way to the mental clearing he believes must exist somewhere.

It seems European Repertory never decided what Woyzeck is about, or why the questions it raises are still pressing 165 years later. Yet a look at today’s headlines provides all the context one needs.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Andy Rothenberg.